Lac du Bois hosts grassland research project
Malaise trap (Photo courtesy Jordann Foster)
For decades, cows have roamed the grasslands of what is now the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) Lac du Bois Conservation Area near Kamloops. Thanks to the Frolek Cattle Company, with which NCC is pleased to partner, conservation-minded ranging and grazing have kept these expansive habitats robust.
Over the next two years, this history of cattle grazing will play an important part in a project of global significance. Run out of Thompson Rivers University (TRU), the research aims to find out the impact cattle grazing has on insects.
Masters student Jordann Foster and her research assistants have placed insect traps across Lac du Bois Conservation Area to see what kinds of insects are using these grasslands, and how the populations vary depending on an area’s grazing level.
Foster expects to find differences in the insect communities in areas with no history of grazing verus places that have been heavily grazed. For example, flying insects with more range than those only living on ground may be less affected by grazing.
Jordann Foster sets up invertebrate traps on Lac du Bois (Photo courtesy Jordann Foster)
Conservation organizations like NCC partner with ranchers both to conserve grasslands and to continue using land for cattle. The results of the TRU research could add to the collection of information NCC needs to determine the ideal level of grazing for ecosystem health. Insects and other invertebrates are vital to all food chains, and their health can contribute to the strength of entire ecosystems.
“This project will fill a knowledge gap for NCC,” says Michelle Dano, NCC’s stewardship coordinator for the BC southern interior. “Research on NCC conservation areas helps us understand some of the more specific ecological processes that occur.”
Projects like this one add to the comprehensive picture of the land that conservation staff need when developing conservation strategies.
“We can use this research to tailor how we manage a natural area,” says Dano, who has provided grazing records to help the researchers choose where to set traps.
The detailed documentation of grazing is one reason Lac du Bois was ideal for this project, says Foster. Staff of the TRU lab, headed by Lauchlan Fraser, have conducted research on Lac du Bois in the past.
Foster’s project started in June 2016 and will continue through October 2016, then resume again from April to October 2017. Two types of traps are being used: pitfall traps are containers sunk in the ground that catch crawling insects, while Malaise traps — structures resembling mesh-walled tents — capture flying insects. The specimens will be preserved in an ethanol solution.
Barcoding Life: the power of DNA
Once the research team collects the insects, they will take DNA samples from each species to send to the Barcode of Life Database (BOLD), an international database of specific genomic sequences from species across the planet. Scientists can refer to the database by analyzing an unknown specimen’s DNA. They enter a genomic sequence into the database to see if a match comes up. If it doesn’t, they can send DNA to BOLD, which will add the new species to their records.
A captured insect specimen (Photo courtesy Jordann Foster)
“Think of a barcode in a grocery store: you just scan it and know what the product is,” says Foster. “Insects are extremely difficult to identify in the field. It’s very time-consuming and very costly.” The Barcode of Life Database will make species identification faster and more cost-effective, allowing scientists to spend fewer resources on identification and use funds more strategically.
For TRU’s project, the cattle grazing question is a separate outcome from BOLD. Foster says that since they are collecting insects, they might as well take the opportunity to contribute to BOLD.
Foster looks forward to sharing the project’s results with the scientific community, and hopes the general public will be excited too. But first, there’s work to be done, insect traps to monitor and grasslands to hike. “It’s an ideal summer job,” says Foster.